A Priest’s Memories of the Pearl Harbor Attack

This is from a letter written in 1978 by Fr. Eugene Morin, talking about his experiences at Pearl Harbor. It was published on Dec. 7, 2008 by the Patriot-Ledger, a newspaper in Quincy, Massachusetts. The first page is mostly background information on facts and figures. The story starts on the second page of the article. I will copy most of the good bits here, in case the article ever goes off the Internet.

A usual Sunday for me while stationed at our Lady of Peace Cathedral in Honolulu was to rise at 4:00 a.m. in order to say the 5:00 a.m. Mass. Among ourselves we use to call this the “Fisherman’s Mass.” All those who use to attend this Mass wanted to get an early start towards the fishing grounds. After my Mass and breakfast I would then assist another priest distribute Holy Communion at his Mass as we use to have Masses on the hour until twelve noon which happened to be the last Mass for the day. There were no evening Masses as we have now in those days.

At 7:55 a.m. we heard some terrible explosions but did not know the cause of them. At 8:30 a.m. a navy lieutenant came to the rectory and told us that the Japanese airforce was attacking Pearl Harbor and all airforce and army installations. We were to dismiss immediately the people who were at Mass; tell them to go home immediately and to remain off the streets. Another priest and I climbed to the flat roof of the Cathedral and looked towards Pearl Harbor. All we could see was thick black billowing clouds of smoke arising from the ships and surrounding areas that had been bombed. We returned to our rooms and turned on our radios but could get nothing as all stations had gone of the air. However, since we were very anxious some news we prayed that the air stations would soon come back on again. We left our radios on and soon the air lanes were open and we were told by the announcer to leave our radios on all the time, that from time to time they would break the silence with information. After awhile the Military Governor came on to announce that all the islands were under martial law and that all civilians were to remain in their homes and not wander about the streets. That curfew would begin at 6:00 p.m. and end the next morning at 5:30 a.m. That block wardens and certain civilian (we priests were included) would be permitted to travel in an emergency.

At 12 noon and army officer came to the rectory with a can of black paint. We were told that we were to paint the head-lights of our cars leaving only a small slit so that a very small beam of light would light our way in case we were called to the many temporary hospitals set up to take care of the dying and the wounded.

In the meantime the military had taken over Saint Louis High School and Sacred Heart’s Convent School (where I am now Chaplain) and had turned them into temporary hospitals. Another priest and I were assigned by the Rector of the Cathedral to go to Sacred Heart’s Convent School and take care of the dying and wounded. We were to hear confessions and administer the Sacrament of Extreme Unction ( now called the Sacrament of the Sick.) Never in my life have I seen so much human blood flow so freely. A sight I hope and pray I shall never witness again.

One thing I must say and I say this with a great deal of admiration for our young servicemen. Every one died a hero’s death. Strange as it may seem when death approaches we always think of those we love most. Those perhaps we may in our youth and forgetfulness have neglected. The thoughts and memories of all the young men I prepared for death, were I am proud to say were about their dear parents. They wanted them to know how much they loved them and what they meant to them while they were growing up but could not express in words due to shyness the love, kindness and understanding they had in their young hearts.

In all my priestly life I have never heard such sincere, thoughtful and prayerful confessions. All of those I attended during the thirty-four hours I worked at Sacred Hearts Convent School went to meet their heavenly Creator well prepared to merit an eternal reward. It is an act of heroic sacrifice to give one’s life for one’s country. During my stay at this temporary hospital I took care of more than 500 young men. Many of them I gently closed their eyes in death, while some I had to leave, leaving this duty to others.

Finally the Rector of the Cathedral realized where we were and sent others to take our place. After a shower and and four hours of sleep he asked me to help the other Fathers (there were nine of us at the Cathedral) hear confessions. We took turns hearing confession continuously in the confessionals in the Cathedral during the day and then at night we would move to the blacked out offices in the Cathedral. Day and night members of the National Guard, the army, the navy, the marine corp and the airforce were coming to confession as we did not know if the Japanese were planning to return and attack us again. Besides the military we had to handle the civilians who could get out during the day.

Later the Military Governor ruled that no more than 10 people could gather together at any time on the streets or public places. Thus all week we had a very poor attendance at daily Mass. We were not allowed to have any Mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, nor on the following two Sundays. All priests said their Masses privately. The Rector of the Cathedral asked me to conduct via the radio (no television in those days) the Rosary and a sermon for all the Catholics throughout the Hawaiian Islands.

The turning point in the war came during the Battle of Midway. That night Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet was having dinner with Bishop James J. Sweeney and I at the Bishop’s home which is situated at the base of Diamond Head. While we were eating the door bell rang and Sister Joanna answered it. She entered the dining room and told the Admiral that he was wanted at the door. He excused himself and left the table. Shortly he returned and told us that he had to leave immediately for his Headquarters at Pearl Harbor as the Battle of Midway had just begun. Before leaving he told us to pray that Almighty God would inspire him in guiding our fleet in this battle for if we failed to stop the Japanese Fleet it would continue right on towards Honolulu and capture the island and would use it as a base to attack the mainland. The Bishop asked me to call all the rectories and convents and for special prayers. I could not say what for as the Admiral had told us that outside his official staff we were the only ones to know about it at that time. You can be sure that we slept little that night and the following night until the Admiral called the Bishop to inform him that our fleet had the Japanese navy on the run.

Much more could be written about our experiences in that faithful day. However, I think that this give you a brief idea of what I want through on December 7, 1941 and the days that followed.

Regarding the USS Arizona I have mentioned it on the first page of this article. However, I would like to mention that the Chaplain, Father Schmidt, was a very dear friend of mine. He and I had dinner together the night before the attack. To be exact it was December 6th, 1941.

Father Schmidt was vesting for Mass in one of the mess rooms when the attack began. As the ship began to sink after so many direct hits he helped many of the young men to escape through the port holes of the ship but when it came his turn to leave he told other young men to go ahead of him. He was not able to escape and thus he lies with the other young men who were trapped in the ship when it sank. Also, a high school classmate of mine from Germain Avenue in Quincy, Richard Dobbins, failed to escape and is still buried beneath the waves in the sunken USS Arizona.

Admiral Nimitz wasn’t Catholic, btw, but his daughter became a Catholic and a Dominican sister. We’ve talked about this before.


1 Comment

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One response to “A Priest’s Memories of the Pearl Harbor Attack

  1. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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